Tiny Rwanda should be inconsequential to the affairs of the DRC, one of Africa’s biggest countries. Yet when Rwanda chooses to exert its malign influence from the unstable eastern border, the whole country shudders with the impact. Now is no exception. By SIMON ALLISON.
In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Rwanda, a nastly conflict is re-igniting. Information is scarce and loyalties hard to determine, but it’s clear that the fragile peace that has obtained in the region for three years is unlikely to last much longer, if it hasn’t been irrevocably shattered already.
Looming over the mutinies, skirmishes and propaganda is the dark shadow cast by a tiny nation: Rwanda, whose malign influence could turn a rebellion into a continental war. This is not far-fetched. It’s happened once before, in 1998, when Rwandan involvement in eastern Congo contributed to what’s often described as the Great African War, where eight African countries were involved in a conflict that measured deaths in the hundreds of thousands.
The tensions this time around began with the defection from the Congolese army of an infamous warlord called Bosco Ntaganda, who goes by the nom de guerre of “the Terminator”. Ntaganda was upset at plans by the Congolese government to arrest him, in line with an international warrant issued by the International Criminal Court which accuses Ntaganda of involvement in rape, torture and using child soldiers.
Although the warrant was issued years ago, the Kinshasa government’s intention to enforce it is something new, a tool to consolidate the power of recently re-elected President Joseph Kabila and give his government some much-needed international legitimacy. In addition to the targeting of Ntaganda, rumours abounded that the government intended to dismantle, once and for all, the parallel command structures of Ntaganda’s rebel militia, which remained largely intact despite their incorporation into the army.
Ntaganda and his top lieutenants were having none of this. Mobilising those parallel structures, his rebel militia defected en masse from the army, taking cash, weapons and ammunition with them. Since then, there’s been sporadic fighting between Ntaganda’s men and the government troops sent to catch them, with both sides claiming important, and sometimes mutually exclusive, victories. The mutineers have rebranded themselves as the M23 movement, referencing the March 23 date on which the 2009 peace deal was signed, and are accusing the government of failing to properly implement that agreement.
The real question in all of this is Rwanda’s involvement. The M23 movement has its roots in the CNDP, which in turn emerged from the RCD. Never mind the acronyms: what’s important to know is that each iteration of the rebel militia claims to speak for the Tutsi population in eastern Congo, and has historically been strongly supported by the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda. This support has included arms and personnel, and even cross-border intervention from Rwandan army units.
There are strong historical reasons for Rwanda’s involvement. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, many of the eventually-defeated genocidaires (the people who implemented the genocide) fled into eastern Congo, where they continued to wage war against the Tutsi-led forces that halted the killings. They formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and, in contrast to the new Rwandan government and Ntaganda’s rebels, remain mostly of Hutu ethnicity. But the Rwandan army has never let an international border stand between it and chasing its enemies, hence their frequent incursions into eastern Congo since 1994; and their support of Ntaganda, and before him CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda (imprisoned in Kigali as as part of the compromises that led to the 2009 peace deal).
There are also financial concerns. Rwandan businesses have substantial interests in eastern Congo, as do Rwandan generals. There’s the precious matter of minerals, which are abundant in that part of the country; indeed, many speculate that it was minerals that fuelled the Great African War as armies all jostled for their share of the spoils. The more stable the government in the DRC, the greater the threat to Rwandan interests. Rwanda is therefore incentivised to destabilise the country, which it does both directly, on occasion, but usually through their sponsorship of rebels. And their favourite rebel is Ntaganda. As Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch’s field researcher in eastern Congo, told iMaverick: “Bosco Ntaganda has always been Rwanda’s guy in the area.”
Last week, an internal report from the under-staffed and under-equipped United Nations peacekeepers in the area was leaked to the BBC, indicating that Rwanda has maintained its support through the latest crisis in the area. Although unable to prove Rwandan involvement unequivocally, the leaked report cited defectors who claimed they had been trained in Rwanda under the impression they were joining the army, before being sent over the border to fight with M23.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch went even further, claiming that the Rwandan military had sent 200 – 300 men to fight for the rebels, and that they allowed Ntaganda and his men to cross the border at will. This was allegedly in addition to supplying them with weapons and ammunition. Witnesses even told Human Rights Watch that they had seen Ntaganda in a bar in Rwanda, meeting with a Rwandan military officer.
Yet Rwanda has consistently denied involvement in the latest crisis in Eastern Congo, dismissing claims to the contrary. Still, the weight of evidence contradicting this is becoming difficult to ignore. There’s no smoking gun, as yet; but the circumstantial evidence is strong.
While Rwandan involvement has helped to exacerbate the violence in the region, their involvement could give the international community the leverage necessary to do something about it. While international or even African intervention is highly unlikely, the African Union and the donor countries on which Rwanda relies so heavily can use their influence to pressure Rwanda into removing its support for the rebels, or to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms. Ida Sawyer of HRW also points out that the UN peacekeeping force could play a greater role in assisting the Congolese army to deal with the rebel threat.
Yet even these largely diplomatic tactics are unlikely to materialise. Conflict in the DRC is decidedly unsexy, as it’s been going on for decades and there’s little hope of a swift resolution. Chances are, the international community will leave eastern Congo in the hands of whichever armed force happens to be controlling all or bits of it at the time, be it the Congolese army, Ntaganda’s rebels, or the former genocidaires (who are being left largely to their own devices at the moment). This means that little Rwanda – with a land mass just 1% of the DRC’s – will continue to wield its undue and largely negative influence over the region for some time to come. DM
Photo: Newly arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo sit at the Nakamira transit camp from the La Corniche border crossing near Gisenyi, in north west of Rwanda, May 9, 2012, after fleeing the Masisi region in Congo’s North Kivu province since fighting broke out between Congolese troops and fighters loyal to a renegade general. Clashes erupted after Congolese President Joseph Kabila announced last month he would try to arrest renegade General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crime in northeastern Congo’s ethnic conflict. (REUTERS/Graham Holliday)
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